By Evan Weppler
The Morning After
Elena squinted and slowly opened her eyes, smeared with mascara from the night before. Her phone buzzed right by her head, as the alarm clock rang its bells underneath the comforter somewhere at the foot of the bed. Thomas popped up his head, lying on the light brown rug, his legs shoved halfway under the bed. Elena moved her legs and the alarm clock found an exit point, right onto Thomas’s chest. It dropped with a soft thud right on his sternum, ringing with annoying clangs, and he grunted in words indiscernible, language of the morning. Elena continued to move around, swirling and whirling about in the blankets and sheets, then began tossing them off one by one with her feet. The comforter fell upon Thomas and once again the din of the clock was muffled.
“It is,” grumbled Elena her volume growing with each word, “too hot!” She slinked out of the bed and stormed over to the doorway, switching on the fan and turning off the light, left on from the night before. She lifted her manicured hands to her face and rubbed her eyes, keeping her long red fingernails from her face. “Thomas?” Flipping her head around, she scanned the bedroom. “Thomas?”
“Unnerhere,” a voice groaned from the floor. Elena leaned over to the right and saw a lump lying next to the opposite side of the bed.
“What are you doing,” she asked, dividing her words with a mouth-stretching yawn, “down there?”
“I don’t know. Sleeping, I suppose.”
Elena wandered over to the lump and sat beside it on the messy bed. “Is your head trying to rip itself from your neck? Because mine is.” She continued to rub her eyes, turning them red with stripes of black.
Thomas’s head emerged from his hiding place and his body followed, as he pulled his legs from their smushed place under the bed. He continued his mumbling, speaking the language of the morning. As he got to his feet, his hand flew to his head, and he rubbed raw his shiny bald spot, making it shinier with each rub.
“Oh, don’t, don’t do that,” whispered Elena. “It makes you look older than you are.”
“Oh, oh, oh, I can’t help it. I feel like there’s a bee buzzing around the top of my skull.” Elena got up, pulled Thomas’s head down with her fancy fingers, and planted a kiss on his spot, leaving a faint imprint of purple lipstick from the night before.
“So,” Elena murmured, moving Thomas’s head to look him in the eyes, “how was last night for you?” Her tiny mouth formed a tiny smile, the lips puckered and cute. Thomas smiled back, a large, monstrous smile with rows of pearly whites.
“It was wonderful, my dear, simply wonderful.” The words spilled out of his grinning mouth with his faux British accent. Elena closed her eyes shook her head.
“Not this again Thomas.”
Thomas mimicked her, closing his eyes and shaking his head to the same cadence as hers. When Elena opened her eyes, she laughed and pushed her mirroring mime down to the bed. And she finally leaned over and pulled out the still-clanging alarm clock. With one simple “click” she turned it off and the room became enveloped in silence, except for the soft hum of the fan.
They sat next to each other. Elena moved her hand and placed it over Thomas’s. He smiled.
Elena’s mascara smeared eyes peered around the room. The dress from last night lay crumpled in a pile on the chair. There was a champagne bottle resting atop Thomas’s suitcase. The room was swathed in golden light emanating from the window. Elena closed her eyes.
“Okay,” said Thomas.
“Do you really want to go?”
“No, it’s already too late. I said I’d be there an hour ago.”
“They’ll understand,” whispered Elena. “Just another twenty minutes.”
“You know how the family is. They like to get there early, even though we wait forever before we start.”
“Yeah.” Elena sighed. She leaned over and grabbed her phone. Two missed calls. As she called her voicemail, Elena commented to Thomas: “You know the girls are probably out there, waiting to see you sneak out.”
“Yep. They do enjoy that.”
“Sorry if it embarrasses you. I can try to get rid of them if you want.”
“No, no, it’s okay. It’s the price I pay for last night.” He got up and leaned over to kiss Elena’s forehead. “But I’ve got to ask you one thing: Where are the towels? I need to take a shower.”
“Bottom drawer in the closet. You want me to—oh wait, it’s my mom, I should probably listen to this.” Elena got up and walked over to the window to listen to her mother’s voicemail.
Thomas watched her move graciously to the golden light and he grinned. He jumped to his feet and grabbed a towel from the closet. With a heave of determination, he stepped towards to door. Then, with his hand on the doorknob, he jumped back and threw on his pants. Then, with his pants on, he turned the doorknob and left the room.
They all sat there, and all their eyes were on him. Two of them held mugs to their lips, and the third was brushing her hair.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk…”
Amy put down her brush and leaned back in the sofa. “Where did you two go last night?”
“Hi Amy. We, we went to the, the, the Italian place downtown, um, um, I can’t remember it’s name right, right now.”
“Tortilini’s. They went to Tortilini’s,” said Alison. “I saw the to-go box in the fridge.”
“Nice job Ali,” said Amy. “And what time did you two get back?” The girls laughed and continued to stare at Thomas, awkwardly leaning against the wall with the towel draped around his shoulders.
“Eleven fiftee—thirty. But it’s not really your business,” said Thomas.
“Oh, it’s our business, Thomas. It’s our business. Anything that Elena does is our business,” said Amy. “Isn’t that right Ali?” Alison nodded. “Isn’t that right, Erin?” Erin giggled and nodded.
“Okay, well, I’m going to take a shower. But for the last time, Amy, you need to stop calling me and your mother by our first names. You may be eighteen, but as long as you’re under our roof, you’re under our rules.”
“Oh Thomas, that is such a cliché. And we’re not under “your” roof, are we girls?” They shook their heads, lips puckered, the obvious signs of holding back laughter.
“We’re just joking around Dad,” said Alison. She took a sip of her hot chocolate and put down the mug. “At least me and Erin were. I don’t know about Amy. She’s crazy!” The girls screeched and released their laughter in giggles and cries.
“Oh girls!” Elena appeared at the doorway and threw a pillow at Amy.
“Mom! Watch out, you’re gonna make Erin spill! She’s been spill-free all weekend- let’s keep it that way, Elena!” Amy shouted.
“You’re gonna wake everyone up,” spoke Thomas. “Quiet down girls.”
“It’s eleven o’clock Dad,” murmured Alison. “The only ones who were still asleep were you and Mom. Everyone else is waiting for you guys down in the living room.”
Thomas shot Elena a look. “What did I tell you? They’ve probably been there since nine.”
“Actually, eight,” said Alison. The five of them laughed and Thomas stumbled over to the bathroom.
He rapped on the shut door. “Anybody in there?”
Thomas walked back to the guest bedroom and pulled a pair of boxers and a pair of brown slacks from his suitcase. He found a nice polo hanging in the closet and went back to the bathroom, past his chattering girls. Elena was in the center with the girls huddled around her. Hearing the words “candles” and “glowing fountain” and “chocolate fondue” Thomas cleared his throat. He shot Elena a glance that seemed to say “Be careful what you say”. Elena nodded and continued to whisper. The girls all giggled and looked up at Dad, with his hairy chest and shiny bald spot.
“Romantic? Really Elena?” Amy commented. Slap! Elena’s hand flew to the back of Amy’s head and tsk, tsk, tsk came from her mouth.
“No more of that Amy. Ok?”
“Ok, Mom. Jeez.” Amy rubbed the back of her head and Thomas chortled. He turned back to the door and rapped against the hard wood. Knock Knock Knock.
“You said that two minutes ago,” shouted Thomas. “Let me in or get out!”
“One more second!”
Thomas sighed. Elena got up and walked over. She put her arms around Thomas’s neck and planted a kiss on his forehead. The girls giggled and with a whip of a head and a glare of her eyes, Elena sent the girls off. She picked at the clothes in Thomas’s hands.
“You know that you don’t have to dress up. The girls are wearing their pajamas. I’m going to throw on a tee.” She rubbed his shoulders as she spoke. “Why don’t you go get your comfy jeans and your USC sweatshirt? You’ll feel so much better in that.”
“It’s not about how I feel, Elena, you know that!” He rubbed his spot. “You and the girls are fine. The expectations aren’t—well, it’s okay for you. But for me—I have to…”
“Sweetie, I know that your parents want you looking good. I’m just saying that this, this is your holiday. Your time. You don’t have to do anything for anyone.”
“Elena, I wish it were that way.” He rubbed his spot more vigorously until his hand flew up against the top of the doorway. Banging his head against the door, he groaned: “I will knock this door down if I have to, Sam. Don’t make me do it, Sam.”
“Don’t make you do what, Dad?” A fourteen year old boy came up from behind them, wearing cargo pants and a red t-shirt. He was like a mini Thomas- same light brown hair, same huge mouth, same poky ears.
“Sam, sorry, I thought you were in the bathroom.” At this, the door finally opened, and Sam’s twin stepped out. He too, looked like a mini Thomas, though he was dressed more immaculately. Dress shirt, tie, black slacks, shiny shoes. His hair was pressed down with gel and he smelled of Aqua Velva.
“You don’t need aftershave Tim!” shouted Sam. “You have two hairs under your lip!”
“Sam, you are just jealous you can’t look as good as this.” Tim bounced away and Sam slogged after him.
“At least I don’t sound like I’m still in the third grade…” argued Sam. The two bickered down the hallway.
Thomas shook his head and rested his face atop Elena’s hair. “Do put on a nice shirt, dear. And no jeans. It makes Mom uncomfortable.” Elena nodded. Thomas stepped into the bathroom and closed the door.
Elena mumbled under her breath. “And why can’t she be uncomfortable? Why must…” her words slipped away into nothingness and she returned to the bedroom, slamming the door.
Elena bounced around the bedroom and found her nice sweater and a pair of brown slacks she hadn’t worn yet that week. Her brow was furrowed, her speech indiscernible, as she mumbled words like “every year” and “mother” and more. She grabbed Amy’s brush from the couch in the hallway and rhythmically teased out her fluffy hair.
Thomas fiddled with the hot and cold knobs until the water was tolerable, then stepped inside the shower. He borrowed some of Tim’s fancy shampoo and rubbed vigorously at his thinning hair.
“I know, I know Elena. It’s not fair. This is our holiday, our vacation time. It’s just clothes. It’s just matters of appearance. But that’s big here! Dad was an ambassador for thirty years! Mom was the trophy wife! And us kids were supposed to be perfect little boys and girls, with our dapper suits and cute dresses. It’s…” Thomas stopped talking to himself for a second and turned down the hot water, as the steam was growing into a thick fog around his nostrils. “It’s something I’ve always dealt with. You don’t know what it’s like. Your mom and dad worked at a Piggly Wiggly!”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?!” came a voice from the other side of the shower curtain. Elena had entered, shortly after Thomas’s words came echoing loud from the foggy depths of the shower.
“Elena? You heard me?”
“I’m pretty sure anyone on this floor could hear you. Fortunately they’re all downstairs waiting for us.”
“Don’t remind me, dear. Don’t remind me.”
“What did you mean by that?” Elena poked her head through a gap in the curtain. Thomas kept shampooing.
“By what Elena?” he asked.
“Piggly Wiggly. My parents worked at a Piggly Wiggly. Is there a problem with a Piggly Wiggly?”
“Well the name is pretty silly. Other than that, no there is —”
“Then why bring it up?! I know that my family is less rich, less famous, less everything than the wonderful Redferns! But my dad was the manager of that Piggly Wiggly for forty years! After working there for twenty! So don’t tell me that—” Elena, who had closed her eyes as words flew out of her mouth like bullets, looked up when Thomas put his hand upon her cheek.
“Honey—I know. I know. I know. I know,” Thomas hoarsely whispered. With each reassuring word, Elena nodded. Tears began to leak out of the corners of her eyes, and Thomas brushed them away. She pushed him back and began to pace in the bathroom.
“It’s always this way! Every year we come to see your family for Christmas you get this way. It’s as if you become a twelve year old as soon as you step inside the marble antechamber of the Redfern estate! You agree with any word that slips out of the Ambassador’s mouth, and you become mother’s little boy.”
“Honey, I’m just being respect—”
“NO! Let me talk! You had your little soliloquy in the shower. It’s my turn!” She gasped furiously and sat down on the toilet, closing her eyes again. “Ron and Chuck never get this way. Sarah seems fine. All of the other Redfern boys and girls have grown up to become fine, well adjusted human beings inside AND outside the Redfern home. So why can’t you? Just say “No” some time! Wear your jeans. Let your mother just… deal with it!” Amy shook her hair in her hands, as if she was trying to get all of the negative energy out of her head. She looked up. The water had stopped. Thomas was sitting on the edge of the bath, gazing at her. She looked back down. The water dripped from the shower head. Drip. Drip. Elena spoke once again.
“We had such a good time last night. The dancing. The dinner. We laughed… I haven’t laughed like that in ten years, honey. And the cake was so creamy and chocolaty— it was just a perfect night! Why can’t we keep it going?” At this, Thomas leaned over and placed both hands on his wife’s knees.
“Because of just that. We went out on a date on Christmas evening, Elena. I don’t know what I was thinking. We were the only ones who missed the caroling, baking cookies, watching White Christmas. The only ones. After we got back last night, I ran into Chuck at the fridge. He didn’t say anything, but I could tell: he was pissed. No one misses Christmas evening activities. He said the family missed us.” Thomas shuddered. “Ohhh! I’m glad I wasn’t there to hear all of them complaining about us not being there.” Elena smirked. Thomas turned serious again.
“I loved last night, Elena. It was magical, it was… just what we needed. But now we have to deal with the mess. We dropped a nuke on family togetherness- now it’s time to endure the radiation.” He shuddered again. “And the Redferns are especially skilled at that. The cold shoulder. The fake smile. The obligatory “How are you today?” with a sneer behind each word. They learned it from the Ambassador, after all. And we are going to get it all today.” He looked up at his wife. “You haven’t been downstairs yet, have you?”
“Well,” he replied, standing up again. “It’s time to face the music.”
Elena looked down, staring at Thomas’s hairy feet. “You think it’s really going to be bad?” She moved her left foot and stroked it against his.
“You remember the time Ron and his family spent Easter with his Karen’s parents in Michigan?” Thomas stepped aside to dry himself off.
“Yeah. Did your mother ever end up saying anything to him at your parents’ fiftieth anniversary?”
“Yes, yes she did. She asked him to grab a serving spoon from the kitchen,” Thomas mumbled as he threw on his clothes hurriedly. “And none of us kids gave him any grief about it. This, however, I’ve got a feeling no one is on our side.”
“Why did you set us up, then?! We could have gone out another night. Tonight. Or tomorrow. Or when we go home! Why did we have to go out last night?” Elena stood up and faced her husband, arms crossed, legs planted firm. Her eyes were stoic, her lips pursed.
Thomas, the son of Ambassador Redfern, the lawyer from Annapolis, had nothing to say. Or if he had something to say, he didn’t say it. He just stared at his wife with confusion in his eyes, as if she was a crossword puzzle he was trying to solve. They stood, looking at each other for a few minutes.
Everyone was downstairs. Silvia and Renee carried plate after plate of brunch items into the living room, where the family sat and played games and talked. Sam and Tim were sitting on a couch whispering to each other. Amy and Alison played cards with their uncles and cousins. Erin sat in the Ambassador’s lap and smiled as he told her one of his stories from Malaysia. Mrs. Redfern sat by the fireplace with all of the other ladies, showing them photos from their cruise to the Caribbean.
Upstairs, everything was still. Thomas still stared at Elena and she stared back at him. The water dripped from the shower head. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip.
“I don’t know,” said Thomas.
“I don’t know. I don’t know why it HAD to be last night. I don’t know why. I booked the restaurant five months ago. I asked specifically for Christmas evening, because I heard they set up only a few tables that night. I, I, I wanted it to be special Elena.”
“It was,” she replied, stepping over to him, hands reaching up to his face. But he stepped back towards the door.
“But why did I book it? I knew there would be trouble. I knew that my mom would look at me with loathing for the rest of the week. I knew that the Ambassador would—” Thomas placed his hands on his head and began to rub his bald spot. He breathed rapidly.
Elena reached for Thomas’s hands. “Honey, I think—”
He spun around and bolted out the door. Elena stood there for a second, but soon followed. She found her husband lying on the floor where she found him that morning: shoved halfway underneath the bed. This time, however, it was his head that was under the bed, and not his legs. Elena turned to shut the door and she shuffled over to Thomas’s feet.
“Honey, you’re going to wrinkle your shirt. Why don’t—”
“I brought this on myself! I did it. Me! I chose the night. I chose to leave at four so we could walk downtown and see the lights before we ate. I suggested that we—” He kicked his feet against the carpeted floor. “—that we dance for hours afterwards! Of course my family would be upset! I asked for this. I’m a sadist! I enjoy bringing pain and misery upon myself! I’m sick, Elena, sick!” A groan came from underneath the bed. His kicking subsided and all was still again. Elena sat down on the floor, leaning against the foot of the bed.
“Why did I choose last night?”
Elena had no words, or if she did, she didn’t use them. She sat in silence.
“They went dancing last night. Didn’t get back til midnight, Chuck said,” Mrs. Redfern said to the group of ladies. “Apparently they didn’t find any of the family activities important enough to waste their precious time.”
“They didn’t even offer to help pick up all the gift wrap and ribbons,” said Gina, Chuck’s wife. She sipped from a cup of tea.
“Silvia and Renee do all the cleaning,” said Karen. “I didn’t see you offer, Gina.”
“Nor should she,” replied Mrs. Redfern. “She was here for the rest of the evening.”
“At least they didn’t miss the entire holiday, like a certain couple from Cincinatti did four years ago,” commented Sarah, eyeing Karen. The ladies cackled and Karen grimaced.
“Yes, at least they weren’t that rude. I mean, Karen, do you know what your Philip and Susan missed out on that year? We had ostrich egg omelets. Granted, they tasted horrendous, but do you think your children will ever get a chance to have ostrich egg omelets again? No, I don’t think so. It was quite selfish of you to take away my grandchildren that Easter.”
“I’m sorry Mrs. Redfern. I really wish I could have made a better choice.”
“Yes, so do I,” replied the Redfern matriarch. She took a bite of a scone lightly spread with raspberry jam. “But at least you are here now. Alana and Thomas have kept us all waiting for almost three hours now. It’s almost time for lunch! I wonder if Alana causes her children to wait this long for their breakfast.”
“It’s actually Elena,” replied Karen.
“What, my dear?” Mrs. Redfern eyed her with little beady eyes, surrounded with perfectly neat eyelashes, each hair follicle in a row and lightly dusted with just the right amount of mascara.
“Nothing, Mrs. Redfern.”
The fan blades hummed upstairs. Elena sat and Thomas stretched himself under the bed.
“You’re finally doing it, Thomas.”
Elena smiled and rearranged herself, pushing herself under the bed to lie next to Thomas.
“Well, I remember when I was fifteen, I was working at the Piggly Wiggly with my mom. I was her bag boy, or, um, bag girl.” Thomas smiled at his wife. “That evening, though, Andrew Reading was playing at the local coffee shop. And I really wanted to go.”
“Andrew Reading? Andrew “Greasy Hair, Gut Pack” Reading? The guy who got drunk and tried to dance with you at your 20th high school reunion?”
“He looked nice back then. Well, nicer. Well, he played drums. Anyway, I wanted to see him. But my mom had booked me to work that day. She always did my schedule, whether I wanted to work that day or time or not. But, well, that day, I came to work. I bagged people’s groceries for an hour. And then I left. I saw Andrew play a show. We went out the following week. He had bad breath. It didn’t work out.”
“Well, I had a chance to rebel. To do something for myself. It was selfish, yeah. It left my mom in the lurch, yeah. She had me work for free for the next month.” Elena reached over and pulled Thomas’s hand from his head, giving the now red bald spot a chance to breathe. “But things changed. I eventually got to arrange my own schedule. I found out not to date musicians. I found out I loved jazz music. And… things worked out.”
“You were fif—”
“Oh come on honey. I was fifteen, yes. It was about a boy, yeah. But don’t you see? This was your chance to rebel. You chose to fight back by simply stepping back from the family for an evening.”
“You never did anything crazy while you were in high school, did you?” Elena brushed her husband’s messy, still damp hair out of his eyes and looked into his milky blues.
“Exactly. I think we all need that chance to do something stupid. I left work. Amy dyed her hair purple. And yours came just, well, thirty years late. But at least it came.”
“What do you think? I’m right, aren’t I?” She played with his hair and poked him on the nose. Thomas turned really serious.
“Elena, this is a big deal.”
“Thomas, no it’s not.”
“It’s just one night. One morning of shame and embarrassment. We’re going to walk down there and your brothers will glare, your dad will stare, your Mother—well, who knows what your Mother will do.” She poked him on the nose. “And then that will be that. We’ll endure it for three more days. Then we’ll go home. We’ll see them again over Spring Break. People will still be giving us dirty looks here and there. But so what?”
“Amy is graduating this year. Sam and Tim are going through puberty. And we have a first grader and a sophomore in high school. I think we have enough drama to deal with.”
“You know what I think is some good advice?” Thomas looked at her with earnest eyes. Elena breathed in and out and answered. “Six words. Save. The. Drama. For. Your. Mama.” She smirked.
Thomas laughed with great big heaves and then started to cough. His legs stomped against the floor and Elena laughed as well.
“Dear, that was awful.”
“I know, but you had to hear it, and I had to make you laugh. And I figured I could kill two birds—”
“Stop! This is terrible! This is not fair, Mrs. English teacher! You know all these—”
“Hey, all’s fair in love and war!” Elena giggled and Thomas guffawed.
“What are you two doing?!?”
Amy was standing in the doorway, as her parents squirmed like earthworms as they rested underneath the bed. More laughter erupted from the depths of the bed.
“Thomas, Elena- you two are perfect for each other. You’re both absolutely bonkers.” She said the last line with a faux British accent she had picked up from her dad. “Anyway, Grandmother is getting upset. She seriously checked the clock four times in one minute. You two need to get downstairs soon or else she’s gonna come and find you herself.”
“Ohay! Hanks!” Words seeped out from the messy bed.
Amy took one last look at her parents and shook her head, returning downstairs.
The fan blades hummed. The shower dripped. Drip. Drip. Drip. Elena’s phone buzzed. She put down her lipstick and reached for the phone.
“Oh, it’s my mom. I never returned her call after listening to her voicemail.” She sighed. “Okay. Here it goes.” She clicked the green button. “Hi Mom. How are you doing?” Elena walked out of the room, and Thomas turned to watch her sashay away, wearing an elegant white dress she had packed as a possible outfit for the night before.
Thomas looked in the mirror. He looked back to the doorway after shouts rose from downstairs living room. Chuck had lost at Gin Rummy and was upset. Thomas smiled. He stretched his arms and as they came back down, his left hand found his bald spot. But he let it be. He took the lint roller and removed the last remains of the dust bunnies. Then he got up, walked to the doorway and, exited the room. He passed his wife sitting on the couch, talking to her mom. She smiled at him with cute little puckered lips. He grinned back a colossal grin and continued on his way. He reached the flowing staircase and continued. He reached the marble antechamber and continued. He reached the living room and—
“Oh, Tom, it’s so nice that you could join us,” Chuck murmured in a mocking voice. He was standing at the games table, having refused to join back in the Scrabble game because no one would allow him to play Bono. “I hope we’re not too much an inconvenience. If you need some more sleep, please, go ahead.” He grinned a hideous grin and sat back down.
Thomas smiled back, and whispered his courage. “OK. Here it goes.”